What is The Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal

Imagine yourself seated at a sun-drenched cantina, the air buzzing with mariachi music and spicy aromas. On the table, two glasses sparkle, each holding a potent elixir born of the Mexican agave. One, clear and crisp, promises a burst of citrus and fire. The other, smoky and complex, whispers of earth and ancient tradition. These are tequila and mezcal, two spirits forged from the same heart yet bearing distinct personalities.

Today, we embark on a journey into the agave fields, unraveling the intriguing tale of these beloved Mexican liquors. We’ll discover their shared roots, navigate the nuances of their production, and ultimately taste the unique identities that set them apart.

Is Tequila a Mezcal?

All Tequila is Mezcal, but not all Mezcal is Tequila.

While tequila enjoys its status as Mexico’s most famous spirit – made from at least 51% blue agave extract – mezcal is its country cousin that uses the fermented juice of other agave species. Though mezcal is a lesser-known alcohol, it is now gaining popularity and is mass-produced throughout Mexico.

Now, you may be thinking, since tequila and mezcal both use agave plants, how different could they be?

To start with, tequila uses exclusively blue agave plants that are cooked in a completely different manner. When making tequila, the piña (the core of the blue agave plant) is cooked in an autoclave before being shredded and fermented. However, when it comes to mezcal, the piña is garnished underground using volcanic rock and wood, giving it a unique, smoky flavor.

tequila and mezcal both use agave plants

Here’s another popular myth that puts a lot of people off tequila – a worm is drowned in every bottle, and some people might even take it with their shots. Of course, you probably perceive it as some kind of ancient Mexican ritual, but really?

Purists say the worm belongs only in a related product, mescal, and never in tequila. But, according to mezcal producers in Mexico, the worm-in-the-bottle is a recent development (more precisely, a marketing ploy) that appeared in the 1940s to boost sales of agave liquor. And the ‘worm’ itself is actually not a worm but a two-month-old larva that infests the agave plants. Essentially, it is there to prove that the alcohol content in the mezcal is high enough to preserve the larva.

worm in the bottle

Tequila vs Mezcal – How Are They Alike?

Both liquors are considered part of the pulque family, a traditional Mexican alcohol made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. It was first invented by Spanish conquistadors and early colonists who had run out of brandy.

Both tequila and mezcal are made from the heart of the agave plant. They are distilled up to 110 proofs or 55% ABV.

Both beverages follow the same grading system, falling into different ranges: Blanco (unaged), reposado (aged from two months to a year), and añejo (aged over one year).

Tequila vs Mezcal – How Do They Differ?

The two are produced in different regions in Mexico: Tequila is mainly produced in Jalisco, and Mezcal is in Oaxaca.

Tequila is mainly produced in Jalisco, and Mezcal in Oaxaca

As we’ve mentioned previously, tequila uses only blue agave, while mezcal is made from a variety of agave plants, such as maguey, Agave Americana, and, confusingly enough, blue agave. Tequila is, technically, a type of mezcal produced from a specific plant in a specific region.

Notable brand names like Cuervo, Sauza, and Patron are famous for producing premium tequila. Mezcal, on the other hand, is handcrafted by small-scale producers or villages. While both spirits are traditionally served neat in Mexico, tequila also goes well with a variety of mixers. As far as flavor goes, mezcal is said to resemble tequila but just sweeter and smokier.

AspectTequilaMezcal
Family OriginPart of the pulque family, traditional Mexican alcoholPart of the pulque family, traditional Mexican alcohol
InventionBy Spanish conquistadors and early colonistsBy Spanish conquistadors and early colonists
Primary IngredientHeart of the blue agave plantHeart of various agave plants (maguey, Agave Americana, including blue agave)
Distillation ProofUp to 110 proof (55% ABV)Up to 110 proof (55% ABV)
Grading SystemBlanco (unaged), Reposado (aged 2 months-1 year), Añejo (aged over 1 year)Blanco (unaged), Reposado (aged 2 months-1 year), Añejo (aged over 1 year)
Production RegionsMainly in JaliscoMainly in Oaxaca
TypeA specific type of mezcal from a specific regionIncludes a variety, including tequila
Notable BrandsCuervo, Sauza, Patron (premium tequila)Often handcrafted by small-scale producers or villages
Serving StyleTraditionally served neat, but also mixedTraditionally served neat
Flavor ProfileCharacteristic tequila flavorSimilar to tequila but sweeter and smokier

Fast Facts

Tequila is often taken straight in small shots. While most people like to do the salt and lime routine, there is a new trend to enjoy sipping Sangrita – a mixture of orange, lime, pomegranate, and chili powder – along with their tequila shot to cleanse the palate.

Since there are no actual laws regulating the production of mezcal, the product may differ depending on the distillery. Under Mexican Law, only tequila that uses 100% agave can be sold as tequila. Even so, as per American law, tequila, which has 51% agave, can be commercially labeled as tequila. These types of tequila are called mixtos in Mexico.

In terms of mezcal, the traditional way to drink it is with an orange wedge created in worm salt – a mixture of salt and ground gusano worm. You should drink your shot first before sucking on the orange. Originally a favorite among ranchers, urbanites, and charro horsemen, mezcal is now experiencing an unprecedented boom in popularity worldwide. According to some business insiders, New York is the city where most mezcal is being sold. In fact, it is becoming the new hot drink for moneyed New Yorkers, who frequent high-end eateries and cocktail bars.

All in all, mezcal is a well-respected and old spirit that deserves more recognition, given its smoky, earthy flavor that can add to and spice up your average cocktail!

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